March 29, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“I can’t tell you where I live or which television station I am currently employed at, because if I do it will probably result in my termination. After majoring in Radio and TV Communications, I got a job at a small TV station, in a town generally seen as a place to get some experience. This was after sending out numerous resumes,” Brad wrote.
“As an on-the-air newscaster, I am not that great and know it, but this first TV station seemed happy with me. I was not getting any training, however, and then another station invited me for an interview, resulting in a job offer. They promised to work with me to improve my on air delivery. So I took the job and have been there two months, but with no training at all.
“In fact, it seems as if most people in the newsroom enjoy seeing me make a mistake. It is a strange atmosphere, not all that friendly, and nothing like what viewers think it is. My work colleagues are, for the most part, a bunch of self-centered, ego-maniacs, and school never really helped us deal with this reality. Since they aren’t offering me any coaching, and I am paid less than at the first TV station, I have been told that I could in fact sue for misrepresentation. Do you think this is a good idea?”
Should Brad sue for breach of an employment contract?
I asked Brad to send me any letters or employment contracts which the second TV station gave him. Assuming the facts which he provided are accurate, on the surface it certainly appears his present employer (1) Lured him away from a good job, with the (2) Promise of not just employment, but training, but; (3) Have failed or refused to keep their word. Prove all of the above, and you’ve got the basis for a lawsuit.
The only problem is, whoever wrote the employment agreement skillfully gave the TV station an automatic “out.” For example, the following language appears in large type:
“No oral statements made prior to the signing of this agreement will be recognized as the basis of the contract, and said contract is At Will. Employee accepts these terms with understanding that anything stated orally is not binding on employer.”
That could prove to be a real hurdle to overcome, should Brad seriously consider filing suit. But in reality, he has been treated very much the same way as most TV and radio talent. Over the years, this column has received similar letters from several on-air personalities, disillusioned with the business.
Brad needs to get real
“Welcome to the world of TV news,” I was told by media teachers at a Cal State University in Southern California, who asked that I not reveal their names. “Brad’s comments about the newsroom as being populated by a bunch of odd-balls is fairly accurate in a lot of TV stations. It takes years to get over the feeling that you are important and that what you say matters. Arrogance and basic dishonesty is hard-wired in to radio and TV, leading to the sense that there may never be a tomorrow, as there’s just no such thing as job security,” one instructor told me.
“On Friday management loves you, but on Monday, you’re fired, usually without any warning. In this respect, it is a highly dishonest business,” another added. “Why do you think many of us are teaching and not on the air?” she asked.
“TV news is a popularity contest, and once that on-the-air personality is less popular, the station fears losing viewers, regardless of how good a journalist they are. This occupational insecurity has powerful psychological effects on those people who we watch nightly. Work environments are often dysfunctional, stations frequently being managed by cold, heartless people,” she stressed.
“The way they treated your reader is fairly common. Few stations in smaller markets have the resources to do any kind of training, beyond limited writing help provided by newsroom staff. That explains why small town TV news tends to be mediocre, as these are low-paying, first jobs in most cases,” I was also told.
File suit and never work again?
Brad’s basic question – should he sue the TV station – requires asking another. Does he want to work in media? That, in my legal opinion, must be the basis of his decision.
Universities are graduating more media majors today than ever before. Talent is all over the place, with no shortage of folks happy to take Brad’s place. Employers routinely do background checks to see if a potential hire has had an employment suit in the past. Even if successful, would another employer willingly take on someone who could be seen as biting the hand that feeds him?
This advice does not only apply to the Brads of the world, but anyone who considers bringing a lawsuit against a present or former employer. This may sound like a cop-out, allowing truly lousy employers to get away with badly treating employees, but such suits must be based on more that what I saw in Brad’s case.
“Be thankful that you have a job and become your own coach,” I told him.
Before law practice consumed my time, I worked on-air in both radio and TV for over 15 years, as a legal affairs reporter. Early on it was clear the only person who could help me improve, was myself. Those jobs were the most fun I ever had as a lawyer, and even today, I miss those lights, camera and action.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.